Debris from a November 10, 2013 avalanche on Jackson Peak. The Bridger-Teton avalanche center is working to expand avalanche training and forecasting across Wyoming. (Courtesy Bridger Teton National Forest Avalanche Center — click to enlarge)

Avalanche awareness effort goes statewide

by Kelsey Dayton
— March 11, 2014
Kelsey Dayton

Before Matt Burkhart heads into the Snowy Mountains to snowmobile or ski, he, like any experienced backcountry user, tries to ascertain the avalanche danger. Unlike in the Tetons or on Togwotee Pass, there is no avalanche forecast specifically for his area. A state-funded forecasting center in Colorado provides data up to the Wyoming border. He might skim various online forums for discussions about the snowpack, or chatter about rumored slides, but those sites can be inconsistent in providing information. There are some local groups, including the Snowy Range Snowmobile Club of which he is president, that sometimes post information. But finding recent data can be hard.

It’s a problem more communities are becoming aware of throughout the Rocky Mountain West as more people head into the backcountry in areas not served by professional forecasters.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center is stepping up to provide avalanche training throughout the state and create a consistent database of snowpack and recent avalanche information for the Snowy Range and Sierra Madre Range near Laramie.

Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center director Bob Comey and his team of forecasters traveled Wyoming this winter to offer avalanche awareness courses in Rock Springs, Pinedale, Sundance and Saratoga. The participants learned basic ways to evaluate the snowpack, and how to search for victims using transceivers and probes. They also practiced rescues.

Students use probe poles in a recent avalanche awareness training course. Such poles are use to locate people buried beneath the snow. (Courtesy Margo Krisjansons — click to enlarge)

Money for the program came from a recreational trails program grant through the Wyoming State Trails Program.

In the last 10 years backcountry use has exploded, said Ron McKinney, the trails program manager for the Division of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails. Advances in backcountry gear like lightweight touring skis and splitboards have increased non-motorized use.

Snowmobile manufacturers have changed the design of mountain sleds, making it easier to access backcountry terrain and push the limits by riding steeper slopes.

“The days of folks putting down the trail are almost behind us,” McKinney said. “People still use the trails, but they use them to access the backcountry.”

Jeff Moberg, a member of the Bear Lodge Snowmobile Association in Sundance, and a member of the state trails council, attended one of the avalanche awareness trainings in his town. While Sundance isn’t in a mountainous region, many people travel to snowmobile in areas like the Snowy Range or the Big Horn Mountains.

“In areas like ours, it can create kind of a vacuum,” he said. “Because we don’t have the mountains, we don’t have the avalanche training available that we would if we lived in a place like Jackson.”

Most of the people who attended the training in Sundance hadn’t had any avalanche training before, he said.

The $70,000 state trails grant, to be spent over two years, will cover the basic avalanche trainings across the state, and work on ways to get information on snowpack conditions out to backcountry users,McKinney said.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, in its 38th season, focuses on the Tetons, where there is a lot of snow, steep slopes and a high concentration of people getting into the backcountry, Comey said. There aren’t the same number of avalanche fatalities and events elsewhere.

But as backcountry use has grown in popularity, more people are getting out across the state.

Providing forecasting centers for all the areas seeing increased backcountry use isn’t feasible. Centers require resources, equipment and data.

“The places that have avalanche forecast centers are very, very lucky,” Comey said.

Aside from a daily forecast during the winter, which includes a rating of avalanche danger, it also provides data on recent slides and field observations, which anyone can submit.  People can search for information specific to the areas they travel in.

For the Laramie area, the center is setting up new searchable zones for the Snowy and Sierra Madre mountains. People will be able to report field conditions from snow survey pits, and easily check to read the latest observations. Eventually Comey envisions adding information on snowfall and maybe offering a specific web address for avalanche information for the area.

The Snowy Range/Sierra Madre center won’t forecast for the area, but it will provide important crowd-sourced data on what is happening in the area.

“What do we all want?” Comey said. “We all want to know whether we can ride or ski a particular slope, and the best indication of snowpack stability is recent avalanche activity.”

The Bridger-Teton avalanche center provides forecasts for the Tetons, Togwotee Pass, and the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges. (Bridger-Teton avalanche center — click to enlarge)

Avalanche forecasting centers across the Rocky Mountain West are facing the same issue with expanding backcountry use and trying similar programs relying on crowd-sourced information.

“This is a bit of an experiment,” Comey said. “We are saying ‘if you are out there and see something, tell us,’” he said.

Next fall staff from the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center will go back to Laramie to talk about the website and how to make useful observations. They will hopefully drum up enthusiasm from backcountry users to start submitting reports.

The avalanche center has worked with the state trails office for 13 seasons. When the forecasting center opened it forecasted only for the Tetons. By working with the state trails office they were able to expand forecasting to include Togwotee Pass and into the Wyoming and Salt River mountain ranges, Comey said.

Burkhart is hopeful something similar could one day happen in Laramie. He’d love to eventually have weather stations in the area providing the latest on snowfall and forecasts for the area.

For now, he’s focused on getting the word out about the site and encouraging people to start posting observations.

“Hopefully, Burkhart said, “that information will help people minimize their exposure to risk.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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